At the Supreme Court on May 1, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg introduced her, University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde gave a lecture on the Dred Scott family and the roots of the Civil War as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Beside her as she spoke was an unassuming image: a mosaic of the signatures of slaves who sued for their freedom. Since it was the first time many of the 300 plaintiffs had held a pen, they all signed their names similarly—with an X.
In Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom Before Dred Scott, VanderVelde explores in greater depth a dozen stories of slaves who sued their masters between 1814 and 1860 in St. Louis, Missouri. Their cases were discovered as state archivists began sorting through 4 million documents that had gone untouched since the Civil War.
"In suing for freedom, the slave defies his or her master," VanderVelde writes. "But when one sings a redemption song, one speaks truth to power... the corpus of lawsuits is a chorus of songs."
VanderVelde was involved in uncovering the cases after she reached an impasse writing about the life of Dred Scott's wife, Harriet, when she was working on her book Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier. There was about a decade of Harriet Scott's life that she needed to account for, and a series of introductions led her to a district court clerk named Melvina Conley, who had been keeping cases she'd stumbled upon over the years in a shoebox in her desk drawer. "I opened them and realized there was so much more," VanderVelde says. She enlisted the help of archivists, students and volunteers to help her track down the many other cases that would ultimately lead to the writing of Redemption Songs.
VanderVelde remarked during her lecture that most people only know of the Dred Scott case because it was the only such freedom case to reach the Supreme Court. His case is famous as the one that said that as a Negro, Scott was a man without full citizenship; the case was later universally condemned. It did not seem surprising that Scott would sue and lose, VanderVelde points out, but that a slave would sue his master at all.
The existence of the lawsuits suggest that more than 100 people had won freedom on exactly the same claims the Scott family used, VanderVelde says. "These lawsuits show that they were wronged. This was not a novel claim. He must have known people who had filed on this basis. They had won for more than a generation. This was an avenue available to him. The statute created an expectation in the community that slaves would be adjudged free; that was astonishing."
The freedom suits also showed the impact of Missouri's unique statute that offered slaves attorneys. "I can't say how important that was because no other person would get an attorney just by asking for it. It was pretty remarkable," she says.
With resonant detail, VanderVelde unveils the stories of slaves who won their freedom in Missouri years before Dred Scott was denied his freedom by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857. Cases that challenged the law are the spine of Redemption Songs. They include the story of John Merry, who was born in the free territory of Illinois, though his mother was one of the original exempted French slaves years after Illinois statehood. Leah Charleville is included because she made the novel claim that slavery interfered with her ability to make more money. Redemption Songs significantly augments the generally accepted narrative of simplistic migration during American expansion on the Western frontier. The book complicates our universally accepted notion of history.
"It's always important for us to remember our stories of origin, how we came to be a nation," VanderVelde says. "These stories are important to changing that narrative. We can't really look at westward migration and the pioneer story and ignore these kinds of documented experiences anymore. It tells profound messages about courageous slaves approaching the courts and a remarkable 30-year-period of time."
Redemption Songs is also a testament to the power of context in law and legal history. "The rule of law stood to protect the weak against the strong. But it also tells us that even for those individuals who win, the winning wasn't easy," VanderVelde says. "More than that, I think it's really remarkable to see persons in extreme situations of vulnerability tell their stories, because otherwise we would have never heard them. It's…a gift across generations to read these stories and to learn about their lives. "
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C.